Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Kris Knife

The Silat episode of the Human Weapon spent a brief segment on the art's signature weapon: the flame shaped kris knife.

Silat is famous for its fluid blade techniques. And it is widely recognized that there was a cross-polination of technique with the Filipino arts. The kris knife is the principle weapon in the art, and holds a special place in Silat folklore.
Myths surround the kris, and somewhat surprisingly these superstitions still hold sway today. It is said the kris can be milked to produce water. Some believe the kris can project a flame, or kill an opponent merely by pointing it at him. In some stories, the kris will rattle in its sheath to warn of unseen danger. There are even accounts of the kris flying out of the sheath on its own to defend its owner.
Human Weapon perpetuated one of the less fantastic myths about the Kris: that the blade is poisonous, and can kell through nothing more than a scratch. According to the program's narration, a deadly toxin is infused in the blade during the forging process.

Every martial art has its cherished myths. These myths serve important purposes; they can, for instance, help form a sense of belonging within the group. Or serve as warnings to outsiders. Myths are vehicles for deeper truths. Myths can even serve as doorways to legitimate secrets. And in this light, I thought it was very respectful of hosts Jason Chambers and Bill Duff to accept the myth at face value during their visit. I wish they had identified the myth as such in the post-production.
In checking some reference material, I did uncover that a solution of arsenic and lime juice is used to etch the kris near the final stage of production. But even Arsenic is not so lethal as to kill through the minute strength in a scratch.
I suppose it is not impossible to coat the blade with some poison. Aside from the practical problem of carrying a poisoned blade (i.e. I know I've nicked myself on my everyday carry knife), pioneer martial arts researcher Donn Draeger has pointed out that poison is a rare tool in the Malaysian/Indonesian war and hunting arsenal.

What I think is more plausible is a common environmental explanation as the core of truth to this myth.
Silat originated in the jungle. It grew-up in the back alleys of dingy port cities. Medical knowledge and care was not widespread. These are not ideal sanitary conditions. An infection of even a minor flesh wound had the potential to kill a strong, healthy man.
One way to test this theory is to look for a corresponding myth and ritual -- perhaps more closely guarded -- on how to treat the venomous kiss of a Kris blade. Even then, there is always Tetanus, which simply requires a dirty, rusty blade.
Given the tight training schedule maintained by the Human Weapon crew, I don't expect them to also play Mythbusters for every outrageous claim made by an indiginous master. I'd prefer they continue to show respect toward these traditions.
On the other hand, when a patently unscientific, superstitious claim is made, I'd like to see more mitigation of the statement -- or at least a more reasonable explanation offered. Otherwise, we;ll all be enjoying Bill Duff crushing Kiaijutsu masters, or Jason Chambers shrugging off Dim Mak attacks...


Temujinn said...

Warangan is an arsenic treatment applied to the blade...nice job not knowing the death would come painfully and rather quickly not like tetanus. Did you bother to do any research before you offered your simple minded supposition?

Thanks for having a useless and bias blog based completely on your misconceptions.

I hope no one is stupid enough to actually value what you write.

jrf said...

Uhhh... I'm unclear about your precise objection to my comments.

Are you saying that the arsenic solution -- Warangan -- used to etch the blade is enough to kill and, in fact, the source of the "Lethal Scratch" story?

And, yes, I did do some research on this... With the resources I had on hand in my personal library from reputable, published sources -- which is, admittedly, light on texts specific to Indonesian/Malay martial arts. I also asked a friend of mine who makes knives and has an interest in blade making history and techniques. Based on the available information, I found no reason to believe that the Kris is somehow a supremely lethal weapon which can kill with a minor scratch.

The page you pointed me to describes an etching treatment applied to the blade. It does not say this is poisonous enough to kill with a minor scratch. Plus, as you will probably agree, the Internet isn't a great source for peer-reviewed work.

My comments were based mostly on material published by Donn Draeger, a noted and pioneering martial arts historian. (See his "Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts") However, his work is somewhat dated, and I'm prepared to accept new information may be available.

I've been around martial arts long enough to know that the truth behind most myths is usually very mundane, but can also be quite interesting. I'm actually quite interested in knowing if there is some truth to this legend about the Kris (or Keris).

Finally, there is simply no reason to act nasty. I'm a reasonable man open to discussion and education. If you find no value in what I have to say, stop reading. I'm sure someone else out there will be writing exactly what you want to read.

redneckninja said...

I for one value what jrf writes. It is rather obtuse of you to make such assumptions as to jrf's integrity. If you have something to share share it, but if your purpose is to jump in and malign jrf's good work, I would ask you to show yourself at least with a legitimate profile.

Anonymous said...

how much could one of those knives go for if they are around 80 years old ?

Jinx93 said...

depends on how elaborate or who made it. a friend of mine owns a very beautiful one... cost him over £600..

But realy just wanted to comment on an earlier post. not to continue name calling or arguments...
The truth behind most myhts is usually mundane???
These knives were not only weapons for flesh combat... sorcerers blades! the serpent blade. The hilt is shaped like a boat carrying a sick man to the land of the dead.

Delan said...

Why don't we use science and cut a pig or something with the blade with the treatment applied? Hell, use a rat or a mouse even, I just think something closer to the bodymass of a human would be easier to use so we wouldn't have to worry too much about the relative quantity of arsenic absorbed vs body weight.

Seems like it would get a quick answer.

jrf said...

I am fascinated by the fact that this post still generates interest.

I watch my stats, and this is consistently and constantly one of the most read posts in the history of the blog.

Yet, I have not received a definitive answer for or against a poisonous blade with sources cited as evidence.